What stories might you find in your family’s history?
This month I thought I’d create a blog different to those of the past. I have revisited the blogs I have written since November 2014 and looked again at the tools, techniques and resources that helped me write the stories I found in my family’s history. I hope very much these tools, techniques and resources help you with your family history…
My first blog was ‘We will remember them…’. It is fitting to take this as a starting point as my grand uncle Alfred lost his life this month, 101 years ago on the 26 August 1914.
The story I found
The story in the family, discovered in a box of family photos and documents was poignant:
Alf joined the army pre-war as a bandsman in the 2nd battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He left Dover on 4th August 1914 as part of the 4th Division of the 12th Brigade. Killed in World War One [WWI] at 21 years old (battle of Le Cateau near Cambria on 26th August 1914), his death really shocked his brother John Edward Hatton and he used to visit his grave every year 1
Where to start?
I started with the 1911 Census, so close to the Great War it lists the vast majority of men and women participating. But it was my decision to look back from here another 10 years that produced a story the family had no knowledge of. I accessed the 1901 Census. I use two subscription websites (as I have found the indexing to be very different on both) and with thegenealogist.co.uk I soon tracked Alfred down, with his two brothers at the Central London District Schools, Hanwell 2. This is the workhouse school, where children were located away from the main workhouse. This discovery gave me a story that linked Alfred with his service in the Great War. Workhouse children generally learnt a trade or, for the musically minded, to play an instrument. It is likely Alfred took to music as he joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as a bandsman. Photographs of the Hanwell workhouse, and Central London Schools (plus workhouses across the UK) and details of their organisation and living conditions can be found on workhouses.org.uk.
The letter I found suggested Alfred was 21 when he lost his life. If we search for a death register entry on freebmd.org.uk we find no results. We have to access the Index to War Deaths 1914-1921 3. This index provides an official General Register Office (GRO) index reference, which we can use to order the relevant certificate (always use gro.gov.uk as the official and cheapest way of obtaining a copy birth, marriage or death certificate).
As an aside, why is the last date in the Index to War deaths 1921 and not 1918 – the end of the Great War as we know it? Perhaps this is linked to the same reason why some war memorials also feature the dates 1914-1921. On 25th August 1921 the United States of America signed a separate peace treaty with Germany; the Treaty of Berlin. Therefore the 1921 date is used as the end of the Great War.
Having obtained the death certificate from the General Register Office 4 and subtracting the date of death from Alfred’s date of birth 5 I confirmed Alfred was in fact 22 years of age when he died. I also noted he was recorded as ‘missing, presumed dead’. How did my grandfather John Edward Hatton visit his grave every year then?
Missing, presumed dead
A crucial source of information is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) 6. This organisation works tirelessly to honour the 1 million, 700 thousand commonwealth men and women who died in both world wars. Major work to restore the Great War (WWI) cemeteries has been continuing since before the centenary commemorations in 2014.
As well as locating Alfred’s grave, which confirmed that at some stage his body had been recovered (remember he was listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ on his death certificate) further records on the CWGC website aided my understanding. These were released in August 2014. Although hard to read at times, the Exhumation and Grave 7 records reveal further information on your ancestors. Alfred Hatton is listed on these records:
– Date of exhumation: 15 September 1920
– Was a cross on the grave if so, give particulars and inscription if any: Yes. Two Englische Kreiger [English Soldier] 26 August 1914
– Effects found on the body: a visiting card found by a civilian in 1914.
This information may explain why Alfred’s medals weren’t claimed until 1922, perhaps after his body was found. This information was detailed on the back of his medal card 8. Remember with medal cards access the ancestry.co.uk website (if you don’t have a subscription and are a member of your local library, access ancestry.co.uk there). The back of the card (scanned by ancestry) may reveal further stories within your family.
I have been unable to trace the service records for Alf as they were probably destroyed with many others during a bombing raid on London in the Second World War. If the records do survive (the ‘burnt record set’) then you may be lucky to find a wealth of information. The service records include the following soldiers:
– Those discharged 1914-1920
– Those killed in action (kia) 1914-1920
– Those who served, but died of wounds/disease without being discharged to pension
– Those demobilised at the end of war
However bear in mind the following:
– If kia it is less likely there will be a file (most files were kept for pension details)
– A higher proportion of files survive for men who were transferred out to other units (unfit to fight at the front)
– The Honourable Artillery Company files seem to survive (on Findmypast.co.uk)
– Relatively few service records survive for men in Irish regiments
REMEMBER if you can’t locate the ‘burnt record set’ consult the ‘unburnt’ record set. These are files untouched or added to from other sources. They relate to the discharge of soldiers at end of service, on medical grounds or those that died after being awarded a pension. There are unlikely to be records for those who were kia if they did not claim a pension or have surviving dependants. Also those discharged from demobilisation sometimes didn’t claim a pension. But do check!
As with any research, revisit your records again. Revisit websites – many are continually adding new material. And revisit your storage files (electronic or paper). I checked my emails regarding Alfred and discovered a photograph scanned and emailed to me by another relative, that I had overlooked. I have added it here.
Having completed this research (for now) I do feel a bond with Alfred, and I have a better understanding of my Grandfather, John Edward (who I never knew). What stories might you find in your family’s history?
To read my original blog We will remember them… click here
To review my list of talks for groups, including We will remember them… click here
Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Cambridgeshire. He delivers courses, coaching, talks, and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See www.myfamilygenealogy.co.uk for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
1Source: Irene Hatton, letter to Valerie Hatton
2Source: thegenealogist.co.uk; RG13/1206~F133
5Sourced as part of some earlier family history research; 9 April 1892
6Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org/) accessed: August 2014
7Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org/) accessed: August 2014
8The medal Index Cards should reveal the medals your ancestor was awarded, their rank, regimental number, the date they went overseas and the theatre of war served in. If your ancestor lost their life in the war the card may also confirm when and where.